Earlier this week, I went to visit the site of The Keep, the new Archive and Record Office for East Sussex, which is currently under construction at Falmer, just outside of Brighton.

Like many people in the area, I have mixed feelings about the loss of the Brighton History Centre, once Brighton Reference Library, that is housed in what is now Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.  It is a great shame to lose this wonderful resource in the centre of Brighton’s North Laines, where a huge array of local history records are easily available on an open shelf basis, and unobtrusive guidance is provide by its team of helpful staff (read more here).

Nevertheless, in these straitened times, it is no surprise that there are not the resources to keep it open alongside The Keep and we must, I guess, be grateful that such a big investment is being made in local archives at all.  It also makes some sort of sense to house everything under one roof.  And, having now seen it, I must confess to being quite impressed by the prospect of researching at The Keep.

The £19.5m development is a joint initiative of Brighton & Hove City Council, East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), the University of Sussex and Sussex Family History Group.  When construction finishes in May 2013, the complete collections of ESRO and the Brighton History Centre, as well as the Special Collections of Sussex University, including the Mass Observation Archive, will be transferred to The Keep.  It will ultimately house the records of eight different Sussex archives in six miles of mobile racking, held in its 3-storey repository wing.  How long the respective archives will be effectively ‘closed’ for is not yet entirely clear – probably in the region of six months.  However, the project is apparently on target, on budget and on programme to open towards the end of 2013.

While The Keep is never going to offer the charm and sense of living history of working in the Brighton History Centre, a great deal of thought and careful planning has gone into the new building.  Attention has been focused on sustainability with its external energy centre and biomass boiler, and future-proofing the new site. There should be enough space for new acquisitions for the next 20 years.  The very latest technologies are being used, including climate control technology currently undergoing 12 weeks of testing in the repository before records arrive.  A bespoke repository is being built on the first floor for photographic material and glass plate negatives.  The risk of fire is also being carefully managed, especially important when Sussex’s records will be henceforth mostly under one roof!

The exterior of the building is plain and modern, wrapped with an original ornamental panel alluding to various aspects of Sussex life.  Inside the main block, the space is light and airy, with two workrooms downstairs.  One of the rooms will be reserved for ‘open shelf’ study, hopefully on the same basis now provided by the History Centre, and will include lots of desk space and PC terminals.  The adjoining room, on the other side of  a glass wall next to the ‘Document production room’, will be for accessing more sensitive or fragile  original records and maps.  There is a separate room for the collection of the Sussex Family History Group, and another large flexible workspace that can be divided into three rooms for teaching, school visits, talks and other events.  Wifi access will be available throughout the building.  Sophisticated copying facilities are currently being worked out and consideration is also being given to the possibility of housing original films from the Screen Archive South East.  Upstairs, the second floor of the main block, there are bespoke new facilities for ongoing digitisation projects, masterminded by the record office and staffed by volunteers, as well as staff rooms and offices.  There will also be a cafe and green space outside for picnicking!

All looks very promising, if rather utilitarian especially on a bleak November day while under construction!  My only concern on visiting the site was that the two main ground floor workrooms might not be big enough, once equipped with shelving, desks and PCs but it will remain to be seen how things pan out.  They key to the success of the new archive will be its staff’s ability to make the site and the space work for its users.  Some of the finer details including transport links are still being ironed out; new bus routes, timetables and vehicle access are still to be negotiated.  Consideration will also need to be given to opening hours, including evening and weekend access.  Hopefully, the new website planned to accompany The Keep will also help to make the new resource approachable and accessible for all its users, in a straightforward and intuitive way.

Above all, the planners and staff will need to work hard to quell the doubters by making sure users can still easily access the existing resources and have appropriate support in finding the answers they seek, as well as acquainting users with the benefits of the new facilities and technology The Keep promises to provide.  The attitude of the planners and the personal approach of the staff will play a crucial part in transforming a pristine edifice into a living, breathing, useful resource.

Please contact us if you would like help researching your family history in Sussex.

About the author